Sep 1-9, 2011
At the monthly Faculty Meeting, our principal says we must do better at classroom management. One English teacher says that’s asking too much. Her worst classroom (and mine too) is composed of the worst students at school, she says. It was a mistake to lump all of them in the same room. Better to spread them among all the classrooms so they can get peer support from the better students. “How am I supposed to teach when they’re all nonreaders, the worst students, and mostly absent?”

Ruffled, the principal says it’s her job to turn the situation around. “That is your mission,” he retorts. I happen to agree with him. We have to do more, find other ways to reach them. The problem is, how?

I go home and wade through my notes from a Peace Corps book on teaching that I’d read months earlier. I find what I’m looking for: a success story from a school in the States. Facing a similar classroom of unruly students, one teacher designed a class poster with all the students’ names and the days of the week across the top. Each day that the students turn in all assignments, are not late, are not absent, and have no behavior problems they get a star next to their names the next morning. Each successive day with no demerits earns a different star (white on Monday, blue on Tuesday, etc.). If a student is perfect all week, he/she gets a gold star the following Monday morning and 5-plus points on all graded assignments or tests that week. The teacher says her kids can’t wait until Monday morning to see if they’ve earned a gold star.

I propose this idea to my co-teachers, who although not opposed are unsure how it would work. When I look into it further, I realize they’re right. We’d have to monitor every action of every one of our 50 students every minute of every class. When would we teach? I’m from the Peace Corps, not the IRS. I scrap the idea.

Third- and fourth-year students from the other campus hear about our young adult bookshelf in our Faculty Room and ask if they can borrow some. I begin to notice students at lunch or breaks reading under trees instead of running around and playing. I never saw that before.

One of my co-teachers tells me during a break in class about an emotional documentary she saw that profiled a remarkable teacher who works with special needs kids. It makes me think of all the non-readers in our reading classes. They can barely speak English, let alone read simple words.

Could any of them have dyslexia? Many people go through life with this difficult-to-diagnose reading disorder without knowing they have it. They, their parents, and their teachers assume they’re lazy, not very bright, or both, and the stigma can stick throughout their life. With dyslexia, the brain doesn’t properly recognize and process certain symbols. 

I go to our principal, who says the nearby elementary school has a Special Education department. Maybe they can help.

I meet with their principal, who escorts me to the school’s Special Education classroom. I’m introduced to two teachers who are assisting  blind or near-blind students in one room and mentally challenged children in another. 

The teachers are very helpful and ask me many questions. Although they’re not qualified to diagnose dyslexia, from what I tell them about our reading students’ class performance and oral and written reading assessments we gave them during enrollment, the women tell me they don’t believe our students suffer from the condition.

Our students can write words, identify words, and read some of what’s in front of them. A dyslexic wouldn’t be able to. Letters would be upside down or juxtaposed or moving. They recommend pairing the worst students with the best ones in small groups for peer support. Segregating the poorest students together in one class is a recipe for disaster, they tell me.

“Start at the beginning, not where they are now,” one says. “Review the alphabet. Do sounds. Vowels. Consonants. Pronunciation.”

Although a fraction of our 300 first-year students who are enrolled in our new reading classes still could be dyslexic or mildly dyslexic, to diagnose them all would require testing at the Eye Center in Dumaguete, which would be impossible budgetwise. 

When I return to the school, I fear one of my co-teachers is suffering from a different disorder — senility. For the third time in as  many weeks, she says our classroom and time have been changed. But when we show up for class, the students aren’t there. Later I discover the class time and location had never changed.

The next day she tells me she’s going to give the students a vocabulary test. When I see the list of words, I don’t recognize them from any previous lesson, and many seem too difficult for their reading level.

I scratch my head. “So they don’t know any of these words?”

She nods.

As tactfully as I can muster, I say, “What if we teach them the meanings of the words before we test them? That might result in a more accurate estimate of their knowledge.”

She looks at me. “Oh, it’s okay. They can  just guess.”

I’m flabbergasted. But I say nothing. She’s the school matriarch, very politically connected. She gives the students the test. I listen silently as the scores are read. More than half fail. 

Following her class is the nightmare class that the previous teacher complained about to the principal. Out of 50 students in the class, 35 have “escaped” this afternoon. (“Escape” is different from “absent.” Absent means you’re gone all day. Escape means you’re on campus but skip certain classes.)

It’s my turn to do the energizer, so I choose “Bear-Ninja-Cowboy,” a more fun version of Rock-Paper-Scissors. They don’t get the concept. I write the directions on the board. I demonstrate it. I explain it over and over. They don’t get it. When they finally do, they get totally out of control, jumping up and down and running all over the place. I give up and sit down. My co-teacher tries for an additional ten minutes to calm them down. She gives up. And I thought a poster with stars would work? 

By contrast, I give my best class a more challenging energizer, one that I experienced at a conference years ago that was one of the most emotional experiences of my life. But it’s risky. Even these bright students may not be ready for the intense  introspection it requires. But my co-teacher is intrigued and wants to try it. That’s what I love about her. She’s up for anything.

I instruct the class to close their eyes and relax. I tell them to imagine themselves in a quiet place alone (their room, a park, a beach, a forest). I tell them someone is about to enter the scene. “For the next five minutes, I want you to introduce yourself and have a conversation with this person. Okay, you can now see this person. It is your adult self from the future.”

The room is a quiet as a tomb. My co-teacher and I walk silently around the room observing them closely. Several students cover their faces with their hands. Sniffles. One girl bends over and stares at the floor. I worry that I’ve gone too far. I look at my co-teacher, who nods that it’s okay, let them continue.

After five minutes, I tell them to say goodbye to their future self. I ask them to open their eyes. It takes my co-teacher and I ten full minutes of prodding and coaxing before the first student reluctantly stands up to relate what happened.

“He told me not to be lazy,” the boy tells the class softly.

Are you lazy?” I ask. He nods, eyes down. “So was this a good thing or a bad thing that he told you?”

“A good thing.”

The next student says he was sitting in an orange tree in his backyard when his older self approached. His older self asked him for an orange, which he picked off a branch and dropped down to him. His older self replied, “You passed the test” and left.

“What did he mean by that?” I ask.

“Sometimes I’m not generous,” he says.

“Are you happy that you passed the test?” He nods but doesn’t look very happy.

The final student breaks down in sobs, and it takes a while for her to get through it. Her mother is dying of myeloma. She has a rare blood type and needs a transfusion for any hope of survival. The student has the same rare blood type. But Philippines law prevents minors from donating blood. In her conversation, her older self tried to comfort her, telling her it’s okay, that it’s not her fault she can’t donate.

Now I’m getting emotional. We wrap it up, and I tell the class that although their conversations may have been difficult, most seem to have been  positive, helpful, enriching ones. I then describe what happened when I did this exercise.

At the conference in which I experienced it, we met our younger selves instead of our older ones. The adults in the room were much more emotional than these students. Some left the room and never returned. Almost everyone was crying.

My conversation with my younger self was as traumatic as one could imagine. He berated me for not becoming the person he’d always wanted to be. “You wasted my life!” he shouted at me. “You squandered it. I wanted to be a famous author, but you’ve done nothing. Where are all my published books? What happened to my dreams? I’ll never forgive you — I want my life back!”

Our facilitator told us the exercise is meant to be healing. We should repeat it by ourselves every few years to keep us in the right direction. “The reason some attendees left the room is because they’re older and assume  it’s too late to correct their lives. But there’s always time.”

September 10-13, 2011
Training clustermates Akesa, David, and I lead a basketball camp for girls at Akesa’s campus at Negros Oriental High School in Dumaguete, and girls from my school and another join Akesa’s for a day of drills and scrimmages. It’s fun and instructive, but neither of our schools advance far in the Provincial Meet.

I hear rumors of a Teacher Appreciation event in the works but see no memo from the principal. At our school, nothing’s official until we get “the memo.” The chika-chika is there’s going to be some kind of surprise, but no one knows when or if it may happen.

I have no class until the next afternoon so I mosey in after lunch. When I arrive, all the teachers ask me where I was. “It was Teacher Appreciation Day. There was a parade. There was a ceremony at the town Quadrangle. Students came up and gave all their favorite teachers cards and sang songs. Why weren’t you here? Everyone was asking where you were.”

My jaw drops. What have I done? Why didn’t I ask someone? I feel like a heel and stare out the window, ashamed and angry and embarrassed. As I stand there in my tiny corner of the Faculty Room, a handful of students come in, give me handmade cards they’d made for me, and wish me “Happy Teacher’s Day.” I want to tear out my hair.

The next day, the teachers make birthday plans for me. In the Philippines, people don’t bring you gifts, you bring them gifts. “What are you bringing us?” they ask me.

At my school, because there’s not one campus but three, this can be expensive. There’s the second campus (mine), the main campus across the street, and the night school. I can’t bring ice cream and cake just to my second campus teachers or I’ll alienate the others. One teacher offers to cook her famous spaghetti, but she can’t afford the ingredients. I dole out cash for the ice cream, cakes, and ingredients.

The night before my birthday, my original counterpart texts me and asks why I wasn’t at Teacher Appreciation Day. I reply lamely that I never saw the memo. She says there was one. She says the principal also reminded us at the faculty meeting. I say I never heard him talk about it. Maybe it was during the time he spoke in Visayan. She says no, he told us in English. I don’t recall it. She and the school are pissed at me right now, and I don’t blame them. She instructs me to be at the flag ceremony at 7:20 a.m. sharp the next morning.

I show up the next morning as ordered and stand as the national anthem and school song are sung. Then I retire to the Faculty Room.

“Is Sir John here?” I hear my counterpart ask one of the teachers outside.

She pops her head inside. “Present and accounted for, ma’am,” I want to say but hold my tongue. Instead of a stern look, she’s smiling as wide as a roasted pig’s.

“Come with me, Sir John.”

Instead of dispersing to their classrooms after the flag ceremony, the students remain where they are. My counterpart leads me through the throng to our tiny makeshift “stage” — a small slab of concrete — where a plastic chair has been placed. I’m asked to sit in it.

She proceeds to lead the entire campus in “Happy Birthday,” and a line of students approaches me with tokens of appreciation — flowers, cards, hugs.

I’m overwhelmed. My lap is soon full of flowers and cards, the latter all intricately handmade (one is even a pop-up) with heartfelt words that I will forever cherish: “We Filipinos are blessed for having you. I can’t believe Americans will come here to teach us. How honored this school is for having you. You are the only American who teaches here but you don’t mind” … “I hope you don’t transfer to another school, sir. You are my second father, a good teacher, and a bridge to my success.”)

I’m asked to say a few words, and I stumble through my emotions, saying I’m honored to teach them and to be at their school and I love them.

The rest of the day, other students stream into the Faculty Room with more cards and flowers, my desk overflowing with their good will. My counterpart even brings a group from the main campus to serenade me. 

At three o’clock the cakes arrive — mocha crunch and chocolate cookie monster — followed by two ice cream tubs, the spaghetti, Chooks 2 Go chicken, a cucumber salad, and a raft of Cokes. Coincidentally, two students from the school’s Culinary Arts class, unaware of my birthday, come in with a cake they baked, asking if anyone wants to purchase it. One teacher promptly snaps it up — and sends it back for them to put my name on it. I deliver it and the ice creams to the main campus. And the feast is on.

Jerlin, the youngest daughter of my last host family, surprises me with a wonderful card she drew herself showing all the members of her family and all the members of her neighborhood. Every single one. Although she wrote all their names under their pictures, they look exactly the same because they’re stick figures. But I tell her she captured each one perfectly.

One group of students who’ve never talked to me before stops me as I walk past and wish me happy birthday. They ask how old I am and where I live in the States. “Are American high schools different than here, sir?” one girl asks.

“Do you want to see what an American high school looks like?”

“Yesss!” they cry. From our new library bookshelf, I grab the four high school yearbooks that my donor friend shipped us. They’ve garnered the most attention of any books so far. When they open the yearbooks and see class pictures of typical American high school girls and boys, they swoon.

“OMG — look at all the Martinezes!” one girl shrieks. “I have cousins in America!”

The Miss Universe pageant is on TV this afternoon, and it’s all anyone’s talking about. As I’ve written before, beauty pageants are huge in this country, and nothing’s bigger than this one (think Superbowl but with better legs). We have no TV at school so everyone’s on their cellphones clandestinely. Students are punished for operating cellphones, but an exception is made today.

Miss Philippines is one of the best candidates the country has had in recent years so the country has high hopes. In the late afternoon, one of my co-teachers leaps up from her desk. She’s been on the phone with her husband who’s watching on TV and giving her play-by-play.

“She made the top 10!” she hollers and starts dancing in the middle of the room. Cheers erupt across campus as others get the news.

Ten minutes later, she leaps up again. “She’s in the top five!” I don’t hear any cries of joy from the classroom across the way. They have no class and are just milling around. I walk over and peek my head in. “Miss Philippines is in the top 5,” I say matter-of-factly and walk away. Before I take five steps, the classroom explodes into pandemonium.

The happiness is short-lived moments later when their countrywoman finishes a disappointing third runner-up. I’m happy, though. My two favorite countries, Brazil and Philippines, both made the final cut.

On my way home, the two male gym teachers whom I’ve gotten to know wave me over and tell me to come back at 6 p.m. for a little birthday celebration “with the boys.”

When I return, the two are cooking roast pork and chicken. Bottles of Tanduay are already on the table. We drink and eat for two hours, arguing over the pageant (“Miss Angola deserved to win”), over what constitutes a third-world country, and over how it’s not always bad to grow older (“You may be 63 above the waist, but you’re 18 below it!”).

One says he saw my magazine article about my first return trip to Vietnam as a veteran and understands why my co-teacher cried when she read it. “Very moving at the end with your image of the country holding your hand.”

I tell him that although Vietnamese people may welcome visitors by holding their hands, Filipinos wrap their arms around them. Both men thank me for that. We go to a nearby videoke bar, and the coaches applaud me whenever I nail a song (“Release Me” and “I Write the Songs”) and help me through the difficult ones  (“Even Now” and “The Way You Look Tonight”). In all, one of my best birthdays.

During one reading class, as the students silently read their story booklets, my co-teacher asks me if I know about Charles Darwin. We then commence a spirited discussion about religion that takes up the rest of the hour.

She’s devoutly religious, believes in the power of healing, and follows a TV faith healer with a huge pompadour. She tells me she was once a Social Studies teacher, but her curricula required her to teach Darwin’s theory. So she told her class she didn’t believe it and refused to teach them. She no longer teaches Social Studies.

After tennis one evening, a Japanese tourist joins our barkada for drinks. We talk about Japan’s worsening relations with China, Korea, and the U.S. (the former two because of economic competition and simmering resentments from World War II; the latter because of our dominance of  his country’s foreign policy since the war and the quasi-military empire we’ve installed in Okinawa that few people know about. (Read the book Blowback for a history of our sordid machinations there.)

He tells me he hasn’t been back to Tokyo since the nuclear accident because it’s much more unsafe than people realize. “Many will die in the next 10 years from the atomic air,” he warns. Well, there go my vacation plans. I’d hoped to revisit Tokyo where I was also stationed in the Army.

One day as I walk home, I pass the sari-sari cowboys who hang out next door to my house. Most are out of work, lounge around all day, and are drunk. Although they’re rough and boisterous, they’re always polite toward me.

But this day, one of them fixes me with a hard gaze and commands in a loud bellow: “John — shot! Eat!”

Before him is a plate of fried fish and a bottle of Tanduay. I sit down, pour myself a shot, and start into the fish under his close but glazed expression. He’s past drunk and can barely put two words together. Whenever I hesitate, though, he jabs a finger at me. “Shot! Eat!”

Then he asks if I have any socks.

Excuse me?

“Socks…socks…socks! Do you have? I jog in morning. Need pair.”

I retreat to my house, grab a pair of white tennis socks, and give them to him. He’s very grateful and thanks me profusely. Finally he stands on wobbly legs and staggers home.

As he does, another cowboy replaces him, one I haven’t seen before. Nice guy, not too drunk. He says he was in prison for four years but “nothing violent.”

As Rodney Dangerfield used to say, “A tough crowd, I tell ya, a tough crowd.”

At tennis, one of the players, a soft-spoken 7th Day Adventist pastor with whom I’ve always had pleasant conversations, tells me I look very fit and will probably live a long life. He explains that the Adventists are among the world’s longest-living people (along with the Okinawans and Sardinians) because of the church’s healthy living principles.

One is optimism. I tell him I’ve been a worrier all my life, which I inherited from my mother, and have never been an optimist. I’m more of a realist or skeptic.

That is until I came to the Philippines. Since being here, I tell him, I feel happier, more fulfilled, and more content because of the optimism and good cheer I’ve witnessed in Filipinos. “Your country has changed me for the better,” I say. “Thanks to your resilient culture of optimism and joy in the face of hardship, I’ve learned a lot about life, about people, about myself.”

On the eve of one of the worst hurricanes of the year, I’m watching TV and munching a chocolate bar when I bite down on what feels like a piece of glass. When I take it out, I get a shock — it’s a tooth. Oh no. I go to the mirror. Ed Helms from The Hangover stares back at me.

It’s amazing how one small (okay, extremely large) gap in your mouth can mutate you into a different person. Imagine JFK with those famous pearly white teeth. Now imagine a hole in that white picket fence. He would no longer be President; he would be Alfred E. Newman.

What am I going to do? How can I teach when I look like a homeless pirate? How can I demonstrate pronunciation when I speak with a whistle? I can hear the jokes now:

  • “Are we having chicken for the party?” “No sir, for you we’re serving parrot.”
  • “Is it true you moved, sir — to Barangay Blackbeard?”
  • “That’s a nice polo, sir, but where’s your cutlass?”
  • “How hard is it to play tennis with a pegleg?”

A tough crowd, I tell ya, a tough crowd.

I text the Peace Corps Medical Office, and they say they’ll arrange a flight to Manila for a dental consultation. A denture might be possible.

But the hurricane changes those plans, grounding all flights. It worsens so much that the HQ office closes for two days as well as the U.S. Embassy, which is flooded.

I reply that I prefer not to have a denture or bridge. I had two dental implants done before joining the Peace Corps, and they’re far superior to anything I’ve ever had. I offer to pay for the procedure myself, including airfare to the States to have the procedure done, using my vacation time for the visit.

The PCMO says the Office of Medical Services in Washington must approve all surgeries. If they deny it, I may not be authorized to have it done during my service even if I offer to pay for it myself. So where does that leave me? Would I have to end my service or accept what I believe may be inferior care?

“Let’s not look too far into the future,” the PCMO says.

“Yes, but in the meantime I look like an evil swashbuckler with a lisp.”

He laughs. “I think your teaching is more important than your appearance.”

He’s right. Here I am worrying again. Think positive. Think happy thoughts. Think like a Pinoy.

But that brings up another cultural enigma. A few months ago I bought a cheap umbrella that fell apart the day after I got it. Instead of buying a more expensive one, I continued to use it for several more weeks. My teachers teased me unmercifully. “You’re a foreigner,” one said. “You can’t walk around with a cheap umbrella.”

“But Filipinos do it all the time.”

“That’s different,” she said. “You’re an American. You have money. What will people think if you walk around like that?” To her, it’s shameful to appear decrepit when you’re not.

So does that apply to teeth? It’s common to see Filipinos with missing teeth (several of our teachers have gaps in their mouths) or round holes in their teeth where dentists appear to have drilled out the cavities rather than filled them. Would a hole in my mouth lower my reputation in the eyes of the community as much as a ratty umbrella?

I already look like a skeleton. Will my students lose respect if I appear to have fallen apart even more? Or should I just put my ego, vanity, and worries aside and make light of it? Maybe come to school dressed like Captain Kidd and make the kids walk the plank every time they escape from class.